By Ronnie Ellis / CNHI News Service
Hal Heiner says he’s running for governor as “an outsider” who can change the direction of Kentucky by changing the culture of Frankfort.
But a lot of Republican insiders showed up here at the Community Center Tuesday night to meet him and support Heiner’s bid for the 2015 Republican nomination for governor.
The wealthy Louisville civil engineer and developer was in the heart of Kentucky’s most Republican region and the congressional district represented by Republican U.S. Congressman Hal Rogers. And a lot of folks loyal to Rogers were on hand to greet Heiner and his running mate, K.C. Crosbie.
Heiner, a former member of the Louisville Metro Council who lost a race for Louisville mayor four years ago, is for now the only announced Republican candidate for governor. (Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway has announced he’s running too.)
But Republican Commissioner of Agriculture James Comer is seen as almost certain to join the Republican race and Heiner sees Comer as his main obstacle to the GOP nomination. Heiner’s campaign manager, Joe Burgan, never fails to refer to Comer as “a career politician.”
Comer has also engaged in a fairly public feud with some Rogers loyalists, going to Rogers’ hometown last year and saying the days when party bosses chose nominees in back rooms are over. That was seen by some as a direct reference to Rogers. State Sen. Chris Girdler, R-Somerset, who once worked for Rogers, openly criticized Comer in an op-ed in the Somerset Commonwealth Journal.
Girdler, who represents the neighboring senatorial district, was on hand Tuesday night to welcome Heiner. So was Bob Mitchell, the long-time Rogers aide. They were joined by several local Republican officials.
“I would say people are looking for someone to change direction, to take the state in a business direction,” said Roger Schott, the Republican Laurel Circuit Court Clerk, who served as an informal emcee for the event.
Or as Heiner told the approximately 120 in attendance, “We need people who are not part of the political system and con work from the outside.”
But among the people he was talking to were Schott; Commonwealth Attorney Jackie Steele; County Judge/Executive David Westerfield; Sheriff John Root; and prominent members of the local bar.
Most of them appeared to like what they heard, many staying afterward to talk personally with Heiner or Crosbie.
Heiner began his remarks by expressing gratitude to Mitchell and Girdler and then by providing some biographical information, emphasizing that he worked his way through college and succeeded as an entrepreneur, developing business parks.
He compared Kentucky’s economic development with what he said are more successful efforts in Indiana and Tennessee, both of which he said are led by both a Republican governor and Republican legislature.
He said those state are doing better than Kentucky because the commonwealth is saddled with “an old tax structure and an old regulatory structure.”
He didn’t provide many specifics but he’s previously called for passing a right-to-work law and reducing taxes.
He promised “there will not be a candidate in the (governor’s) race who will fight harder to bring coal back in Kentucky.”
“Why can’t we band together with other states and push back on states’ rights issues?” he asked, talking about fighting federal environmental regulations viewed in the coal fields as the reason for the industry’s decline.
“There really is a war on coal,” said Heiner.
He said Kentucky enjoys a prime, central location; a strong work ethic; and cheap utility rates and should be an attractive destination for business and industry looking to relocate. But it’s held back by the lack of political leadership in Frankfort and by its tax and regulatory structures.
Rural Kentuckians are often wary of political candidates from Louisville, but Judge Westerfield said he’s comfortable with Heiner.
“I’m on board,” he said. “He came by my office about four months ago and we talked and I’ve been on board ever since.”
RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.